Did Archaeologists Just Find Evidence of Hanukkah Stories?

Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP via Getty Images
Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP via Getty Images

This week marks the beginning of Hanukkah, the “festival of lights.” The holiday commemorates an event during the Maccabean revolt in the second century BCE, when the candelabrum in the Jerusalem Temple miraculously burned for eight days despite only having enough oil for one. But Hanukkah isn’t just about energy efficiency; broadly speaking it celebrates the successful struggle for Jewish independence. Now archaeologists have unearthed the charred remains of a fort destroyed by Jewish rebels more that 2,000 years ago and claim that it offers evidence of the Hanukkah-related rebellion.

In a statement released last week, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) announced that they had discovered the burned wooden beams and ruins of a fortified Hellenistic structure in the Lachish Forest. The remains of the small 15m (50-foot) x 15m fort were unearthed about an hour’s journey to the southwest of Jerusalem on the summit of a high hill in the Judean foothills. The position of the structure gave it a clear vantage point over the neighboring city of Maresha, the largest Hellenistic center in the area.

Saar Ganor, Vladik Lifshits, and Ahinoam Montagu, excavation directors on behalf of the IAA, said that the site “provides tangible evidence of the Hanukkah stories. It appears that we have discovered a building that was part of a fortified line erected by the Hellenistic army commanders to protect the large Hellenistic city of Maresha from a Hasmonean offensive. However, the finds from the site show that the Seleucid defenses were unsuccessful; the building was badly burnt and devastated by the Hasmoneans.”

For the excavators, who were funded by the Kings of Judah Road project and the Jerusalem and Heritage Ministry, the site has important cultural and historical significance. Once excavation and conservation work has been completely, there are plans to open the site to the public. Others also find meaning in the discovery. The Minister of Culture and Sports, Chili Tropper, said in the statement: “The Israel Antiquities Authority’s fascinating new discovery is a classic example of how traditional, well-known and well-loved stories become part of the historical and archaeological record. The building’s excavation reflects the glorious roots of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel and brings the Hanukkah stories to life.”

<div class="inline-image__title">1236597573</div> <div class="inline-image__caption"><p>High-school students take part in an excavation by the Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA) in Lachish Forest near the southern city of Kiryat Gat, Nov.16, 2021. A Hellenistic fortified structure destroyed and burned by Hasmoneans was uncovered during an IAA excavation in Lachish Forest, in the Judean Shephelah.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP via Getty Images</div>

But does it? The timing of the announcement was clearly calculated to coincide with the Jewish holiday celebrating independence and divine protection, but the chronology is a little off. The archaeologists report that on the basis of finds at the site, they date the destruction of the site to 112 BCE. The Hanukkah story, on the other hand, is traditionally dated to 166 BCE, when Judah “the Hammer” Maccabee, the son of the former priest Mattathias, used guerrilla tactics to drive the Syrian Seleucids from Jerusalem and subsequently cleansed and rededicated the Second Temple.

I say “traditionally” because the origins of Hanukkah are murky. Our earliest literary sources for the events of the Maccabean revolt don’t mention anything about the miracle of oil. Oddly, the first-century Jewish historian Josephus, who first refers to a holiday called the “Festival of Lights,” never calls it Hanukkah or explains why it is associated with light. Dr. Catherine Bonesho an assistant professor in Early Judaism at UCLA told The Daily Beast that our sources for the miracle are quite late. After Josephus, she said, “the ritual of lighting lamps does not appear in textual form until the Mishnah (200 CE), nor does the tradition of the miracle of oil appear until the Babylonian Talmud (edited between fifth and seventh centuries CE).”

Even putting aside this complication and accepting the traditional dating for the event, there’s still a substantial gap between the Maccabean revolt (which lasted from 168-160 BCE) and the destruction of the fort in the Lachish Forest. Even taking (as we should) a long view of the rebellion and its aftermath, which continued into the 150s, there’s still something of a gap. As Dr. Robert Cargill, an archaeologist at the University of Iowa told me, “It’s an excellent discovery but it looks like they’re trying a little too hard to fit it into the Hanukkah story.”

The discovery does add support for the scholarly view that much of the impetus for revolt was disagreements between elite Jewish families, who clashed over the extent to which they should be Hellenized. Ideological and religious conflicts between the Maccabees (from which the Hasmonean Dynasty emerged) and other prominent families led to vying for control of the priesthood. Just as the Jewish homeland was treated like a football by foreign powers like the Ptolemies of Egypt and Seleucids of Syria, the power of the priesthood was an important focus in intra-Jewish power struggles.

We can see this in the sources themselves, after a ceasefire between the Syrian general Bacchides and Jonathan (Judah Maccabee’s younger brother) in 160 BCE, 1 Maccabees tells us that “Jonathan settled in Michmash and began to judge the people; and he destroyed the godless out of Israel.” This continuing struggle is one reason that some scholars see the Hanukkah not just as, as Dr. Shayna Zamkanei writes, a “celebration of the restoration of the Second Temple…[but] also a reminder of the dangers of civil war.”

<div class="inline-image__title">1236597566</div> <div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) archaeologist Saar Ganor presents pottery finds at an excavation site in Lachish Forest near the southern city of Kiryat Gat on Nov. 16, 2021. Hellenistic fortified structure destroyed and burned by Hasmoneans was uncovered during an IAA excavation. “The building’s devastation is probably related to the region’s conquest by the Hasmonean leader John Hyrcanus in around 112 BCE,” according to IAA archaeologists.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP via Getty Images</div>

The conflicts between various families and desire to shake free of Syrian control rippled through the subsequent centuries. Even after 160, Paula Fredriksen, the Aurelio professor of scripture emerita at Boston University and a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, told me fighting continued as the Hasmoneans continued to gain strength: “The Seleucid fortress in Israel’s Lachish forest… tells the story of the Hasmoneans’ subsequent rise to power. Hasmonean warrior-priests picked off formerly Seleucid territories and incorporated them into a growing Judean kingdom.”

What’s interesting, as Fredriksen writes in her beautiful book When Christians were Jews: The First Generation, is the ways in which international politics plays out both visibly and invisibly in the background. The position of High Priest, she pointed out, had to be filled by someone who could work with the Seleucids. The traditionalist Maccabees might have been victorious in 160 BCE, but for seven years afterwards the priesthood lay empty because they had no strong candidates who could play nice with foreign rulers. It was only after the death of the Syrian monarch Antiochus in 152 BCE that Jonathan became high priest and his political opponents left Jerusalem.

The legacy of the struggles between different Jewish factions, Fredriksen told me, created the opportunity for Roman military intervention almost a century later. In the 60s CE another struggle for the priesthood, this time between Hasmonean brothers, destabilized the region and provided the pretext for Rome and Pompey’s siege of Jerusalem. The irony here, said Fredriksen, is that Roman influence and military might had bubbled in the background of Judean history since the beginning of the Maccabean revolt a century beforehand: “The alliance with Rome that had sponsored Judean independence in 168 BCE eventuated in the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in 70 CE.”

The Lachish fort, therefore, is part of this long history of the Maccabean revolt and the Hasmonean rise to power. Dr. Matthew Novenson, a professor at the University of Edinburgh and author of The Grammar of Messianism, agreed that legacies of these political struggles cast a long shadow over history. “The Hasmoneans were tremendously important not only for purifying the Jerusalem temple (thus providing the occasion for the festival of Hanukkah) and establishing an independent Jewish state” but also for creating a kind of mythology. “By driving the Seleucids out of Judea, they also exercised a folk-hero influence upon later Jewish messianic movements, for instance, in the Jewish-Roman War of 66-70 CE and the Bar Kokhba War of 132-136 CE.” This is what scholar John Gager has called “the myth of the Maccabees” and it contributes to later forms of messianism that optimistically believed that they too could throw off the shackles of foreign domination. Fredriksen agreed, “The growth of Hanukkah as a Jewish holiday is testimony to the principle established by the victorious Maccabean Revolt: while living with diversity, Jews would also guard Jewish tradition, memory, and identity.”

Just because the discovery can’t be tied to the Hanukkah miracle itself doesn’t make the discovery less valuable or less relevant to our understanding of Jewish history. Moreover, as Cargill said, “The region is a fascinating region. It’s a beautiful area of the country and there’s a lot of archaeology evidence left to be uncovered. The team is doing valuable work in the region” and you should still visit if you get a chance.

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